Feeling Burned Out? You’re Not Alone

May 11, 2021

The good news: WE SAW EACH OTHER IN REAL LIFE, IN PERSON, WITH OUR PERSON FACES, for the first time in more than 14 months!

The bad news: We’re burned out. Not teetering on the edge of burnout. Burned. Out.

These two things are related.

Not as a direct cause and effect, mind you. We didn’t lay eyes upon each other, unmediated by screens for the first time in over a year, and then have our heads explode like overtaxed light bulbs.

No, it’s just the accumulation of the last year and some change. The pandemic. Politics. The general stress of running a small business. Social isolation. Health stuff. Life stuff.

You likely have an intuitive sense of what burnout is – how it feels in your body and how it slows down your thoughts like molasses, but the old school definition of burnout (coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975) is defined by three components:

Emotional Exhaustion — the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long

Depersonalization — the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion

Decreased sense of accomplishment — an unconquerable sense of futility or feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

According to Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski, who wrote an amazing book called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (which we are 100% re-reading this week), it’s mainly #1: Emotional Exhaustion that shows up most frequently in women, and that’s certainly the component that’s currently kicking our butts.

And we know we’re not alone. Most of our friends and colleagues who’ve been lucky enough to actually have work during this hell ride of a year have reported burnout. Being on Zoom 8 hours a day does a number on you.

Of course, it’s not only work that causes burnout (though that’s the kind that’s been scientifically studied the most, so far.) It can be from parenting or caregiving or grad school or, you know, living during a pandemic.

Whatever the cause, it feels terrible.

Why are we telling you this?

Honestly, we’d really rather not. We’d prefer not to. No thank you.

We’ve been trained to hide our vulnerabilities and to muster up a smile (summoned, if necessary, from an interdimensional portal because of our personal smile shortages), no matter what.

Like, for context, we’ve taught through debilitating personal illness and family death without ever publicly acknowledging what was happening in our personal lives. (Because contingent labor, capitalism, being female in the workplace and therefore feeling the need to be EXTRA COMPETENT, blah blah blah.)

But we’re telling you anyway for a couple of reasons.

If you’re feeling burnout, or have felt it over the last year, we want you to know that you’re really, really not alone.

There are ways to combat it. Us seeing each other in person was a direct result of the vaccine (YAY!), but it was also our first baby step towards recovering. We spent a couple of days in Asheville, NC, drinking habanero-vanilla cider on a patio, going on ghost tours, and sticking our feet in hot tubs while re-reading Angela Carter’s fairy tales, and it was glorious.

It’s also not going to fix burnout on its own, though it certainly did wonders for our moods. But meaningful connection (i.e. feeling really seen and heard by people you care about) is a solid start, and we did plenty of that.

We wanted to share some resources for dealing with burnout. We highly recommend the Nagoskis’ book, but you can also listen to this excellent podcast where Brené Brown interviews them and discusses some takeaways from their work, if that’s more your speed.

But in a nutshell, the Nagoskis distinguish stressors (the thing that’s actually stressing you out, like social isolation or work or caregiving demands, etc.) from your stress response (the actual chemical, neurological response in your body that results in fight, flight, or freeze). You have to periodically deal with your stress response, even if the stressor is gone or chronic. (The book and podcast lay all this out super-well with Much Science, but this is the condensed version.)

To complete the stress cycle in your body and combat burnout, you can move your body (run, dance, walk, climb big rocks, whatever), practice deep breathing (with nice, slow exhales), have positive social interactions (like our Asheville retreat was for us), laugh (but real laughter, not forced), feel affection (hugs!), have an epic cry, or practice some kind of creative expression (paint, knit, write, whatever).

We plan on hitting all these strategies hard over the next few weeks and months.

If you’re reading all this and thinking “oh god what does this mean for Carterhaugh? Are they quitting???” don’t worry. We’re not going anywhere. Our burnout is much more 2020-1 based than work-specific. And we’re taking steps to address it, so that we can keep showing up for our work and this community the way that we want and need to.

Our biggest takeaway from the Nagoskis’ work, and that we want to share with you, is that if you’re feeling burned out, please show yourself compassion. Don’t try to force yourself through it. Don’t bully yourself for feeling the way you do (as we are wont to do.) Try some of the strategies above, and know that you are really, truly not alone. Have a good laugh, if you can. Dance around your living room. Connect. We’ll get there together.

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